Let's talk about bass

I’m kind of a polysynth and guitar guy. I’ve got a few chops in mids and high end. But my basslines aren’t grabbing me.

What do you think about when you think about the low end? How do you make it stand out, but also sit in a mix? How do you keep it interesting while still holding things down? How do you relate it to your drums? How do you relate it to your harmonies and melodies? What are your favorite sound sources and processing techniques?

Bass

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I just work with the best bass player I could find

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Tricky subject! I’m still trying to master this myself so I’m not exactly an expert (yet!) but I do have some (ok a lot of) ideas on this.

The first thing I do is throw on my mixing headphones. (Beyerdynamic 990 open backs paired with the Sonarworks Reference 4 plugin to flatten out the frequency response.) I primarily record in a small untreated room so I’m just not hearing a true representation of the low frequencies. Even if your room is treated you just won’t get an accurate sound in a home studio. Phase cancellation will almost always happen and it is your biggest enemy when dealing with bass. Play something with low frequencies in it and move around the room. Listen in front of your speakers, then in the middle of the room, and then in the corners. You’ll notice the volume fluctuate greatly and some frequencies might cancel out completely and disappear!

After that I’d say sculpting/picking the right sound is most important. There are some bass sounds that just wont work in the context of a mix. Don’t pick a sound because you like it on its own and if it doesn’t sit in the mix properly then don’t rely too much on fixing it in the mix later on. Getting a great bass recording at the beginning is key.

While mixing your friends will be side chain compression, EQ masking and dynamic EQ. The classic example of course is making the kick and the bass work together. Side chain the kick to the bass so that the bass drops in volume whenever the kick hits. EQ them so they sit in different frequency ranges. (Sound selection is key here too… if the kick just won’t work with the bass then replace the kick) A lot of the time you’ll find that certain notes jump way up in volume over others. Before you use compression use a dynamic EQ to lower just those frequencies when they hit, then add a compressor after that.

Saturation or light distortion can make a huge difference as well. It can help a bass stick out in the mix or sound less muddy.

Bass can have mid and high frequencies in there too. Sometimes I separate a bass into low, mid, and high frequencies and process them all differently then bounce them back down to one sound. Compress each one differently so they all achieve the same amount of gain reduction. You can also add more distortion on the mids and a stereo effect on the highs. The bass will pop more in the mix while also having a wider sound. This also help the bass to be heard on smaller speakers that can’t produce much low end.

Make sure you fold all frequencies under 250Hz to mono. The lower the frequency the less stereo spread it should have. This is not a solid rule but it’s helpful to follow at first. There are plugins that can do this automatically for you like the new Utility plugin in Ableton 10 or the Brainworx Control and BX Digital EQ. Using a mid side EQ on the master mix bus is helpful too. You can roll off some more of the low end from the sides and boost the low end on just the mids.

OK that’s enough out of me.

56%20PM

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In the music I make, bass is often a drone.

Sometimes it’s the primary rhythmic element (and it’s unlikely to be fighting with a kick).

Sometimes the bass and melody line are the same thing and I’ve probably got octave leaps and legato and such

The main things I think about:

– Is it solid? If not, do I want it to be? Should I have another bass part, layer in a sine sub, or leave that range empty for effect?

– Is too much concentrated in a narrow frequency band? I write for headphones, which is more forgiving, but this still could be a concern.

– Is it fighting with something else? Sometimes I will rely on a master limiter to handle it and let things get a bit messy, sometimes I’ll think about sidechaining or EQ or something to separate them.

So the typical mixing/production concerns kind of apply, but not in the same ways.

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Just want to interject, that I’m really interested in hearing creative ideas as well! (Though I do appreciate the production advice, and I’m downloading a trial of Sonarworks Reference right now).

Sound sources? Creative processing techniques? Composition ideas?

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I like 3/4 time signature basslines shifting in a 4/4 track.

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I don’t worry about it, too be honest. I basically try to avoid too much stuff below 50-60 Hz because in an untreated room it there’s no way to judge how it balances out the rest of the mix. Probably I should cut even higher, but I do like some stuff there…

While I left dance music a long time ago, I do remember that a lot of the Chicago acid (Armando, Larry Heard etc.) as well as (at the time) contemporary revivalists like Jamal Moss didn’t really have so much bass, it was about polyrhythms and groove and intensity and for the most part blowing minds! Obviously much of that had more critical than commercial success. Then again, other legit stuff like Kerri Chandler or Dennis Ferrer (again, I’m only showing that it’s been over 10 years since I was seriously concerned about this) was very well engineered from the get go, and benefitted from it.

In general, bass collisions seem to be symptomatic of general arrangement issues (too many tracks) which may or may not be actual issues, given the immense set of cultural assumptions we rightly bring to the process (because it takes time… one can’t just snap your fingers and place oneself above the fray)

The fact there are even “problems” with bass though, and that almost everyone acknowledges and experiences them, raises questions about what our medium actually is. Recording always aims at some ideal, which is to say it conjures some virtual, fictional space that may or may not map onto how recordings are actually experienced, but that nonetheless has the force of a paradigm. For a number of years after the invention of the camera, it wasn’t really until the 1920’s that photography was liberated to be its own medium, before it found both artistic and commercial success by imitating aspects of painting (pictorialism etc.) This purism lasted for a while then all the assumptions were questioned again.

With respect to recording, I see the same relation as with painting and photography in that all of the “mix tricks” that developed from the 1960s on were designed to take live performances, which had 6-7 or more instruments easily separated through spatial cues, and replicate the experience in stereo (or mono, in the early days). The problem becomes, how do we take something played on two speakers, and replicate the experience that one would have had if it had been performed live? In other words, like replicating painting through photography, which is not meant derisively, it may just be where we are, the persistence of a paradigm. In part this question really goes to the spaces in which music is experienced – is it for the club, is it for some kind of social listening experience, or is it mostly listening alone on wireless headphones? Not the most common experience, but again, it’s the ideal which is in question. [Now, the Eno “studio as an instrument” sense, that has become for most of us like breathing… but that’s about production itself, not how we envision or interpret what we’ve done as to format.]

I think at minimum, as musicians, we hope that our music as production, as “thing” should occasion some kind of gathering [a ‘thing’ in its original (Germanic) etymological sense as ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’; not in its modern sense as ‘object’ or ‘commodity’]. Or in other words, what is the ultimate focus? With focus there’s also the (Latin) etymological sense, as domestic hearth – as again something that gathers, so there’s no escaping the question.

Live performances or club play obviously attests to some sort of gathering, and both benefit from spatial and visual cues not readily available in the listening-on-two-earphones mode. Mix tricks thus enable the gathering to be experienced vicariously, but still in some sense experienced. Indeed, when one is listening by other means there is at least some reference, some implicit harking back to the sense of gathering, even if one experiences it only vicariously.

I wonder though, are there other ways beyond live, physical dissemination, that music can occasion a gathering? (And what, exactly is gathered? It’s not just about people perhaps! Not that this is always the goal, but what exactly is it in a religious or ecstatic experience that is gathered?)

What about through forums such as this, as we discuss music largely experienced digitally, in formats conceived only in their role as content, but in ways that subvert its status as content? Is that a gathering, and is it occasioned by music?

What about gathering through Youtube channels, in which the aesthetics surrounding the production, and the life of the artist are in some ways as important as music?

There is the bare and sad fact that most of the music I enjoy these days simply will never be played in a club or performed live, OR form the basis for a Youtube ‘gathering’ – but it definitely circulates, it influences what I do, I discuss and share it.

But does it gather?

I’m not sure I have an answer here, or what that means for the situation I’m really trying to target. I guess I’m still trying to work all of this out (what a release actually is).

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I don’t have much knowledge on the production/mixing front, but I have some thoughts on bass line creativity below.

Appoggiatura is a bass line’s best friend, and also syncopation.

A charting example of use of non-chord tones would be Post Malone’s Congratulations (not an endorsement of him or his music). That maj7 in the chorus always makes you think it’ll resolve upwards to the tonic, but it doesn’t, and the song stays relatively interesting despite only having two chords(!!!) in it! Similarly, the bass in Interpol’s Untitled keeps the song interesting, despite it repeating the same four bar guitar part over and over (I could only find an edit on youtube but I recommend going out and finding the album version). St Vincent’s earlier work, particularly all of the Voyager on Strange Mercy, is a masterclass in sustained bass. Frank Ocean’s stuff is also full of this, particularly here, in Nights. Definitely a good example of non-chord tones appearing on accented beats.

Going back to the tension and release thing, Darkside do it with time, not tonality, by literally make you wait over seven minutes for the proper bass line to come in on this track. I think it’s worth the wait. Mount Kimbie use it to give some of their tracks momentum.

Other good examples, or stuff that just has interesting bass for inspo:
serpentwithfeet – Blisters
Kneedelus – Drum Battle (actually this whole record is full of interesting bass)
These New Puritans – V (Island Song) (bass comes in around 1:30)
Jenny Hval – Heaven
Visible Cloaks – Terazzo
Nicolas Jaar – No
Son Lux – Lost It To Trying
Here We Go Magic – Over The Ocean
Julia Holter – In The Green Wild

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It’s really easy to just let the bass be a pad and sometimes that works really well.

Bass notes locked in with kick drum hits is a common one.

Syncopation is awesome. Hit the down beat but then jump around to other places. In my mind I picture the bass briefly acting as another instrument would - as a guitar adding quick melodic stabs, as a drum bringing the energy up with a fill before the next bar…

Overlapping with the fill idea, I often do a bit of “walking” to anticipate the following chord change.

I think a lot about (but am not at all good at) Brain Wilson’s approach of using non-root tones to create interesting flavors and chords that feel like suspensions and bass lines that seem like melodies in and of themselves.

In terms of the actual sound, so much is dictated by the rest of the piece. Will it be a synth, or a bass guitar, or low piano notes, etc. On some tracks I’ll filter it down to leave only the warm low end and on others I’ll add some saturation to bring out the top and make it bite.

I will always love a good chugging 16th-notes synthwave bass.

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I have a droning bass which is making my amps rumbling unpleasantly, so I tried to EQ out some of the low frequencies…but maybe it is still not enough. Shall I use a high pass filter and what would be the difference?

I’ve been playing bass for 22 years and I think that besides a good compressor, a HPF is just about the best investment I’ve made for my bass rig. It will remove frequencies that your cabinet cannot reproduce cleanly, allowing your amp to focus its full power on frequencies that it can. Since what we generally perceive as the lows of a bass is actually the second harmonic an octave up, you don’t really feel like anything is missing and everything just kinda cleans up as a result.

I’d sweep the HPF up until you start to notice it, then back it off to just before that - it could be a surprising amount of reduction.

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Couple weeks before the outbreak I was eyeing one of these (or similar) in the local secondhand shop

(Link to reverb.com)

It was ridiculously cheap but I guess I’m glad I passed in hindsight, don’t need more weird rack stuff

Had an Eden metro combo for a while and the eq +comp stage was invaluable for anything with low end (in my case, a lot of 8vb and 16vb strings)

as a bassist, the most powerful tool in your toolbelt is the root note on the one. your job is to use it as judiciously as possible

think like Reich or Glass – take this little idea and evolve it in tiny increments over the course of a whole section or song. little gestures towards where it might go, building and building, aliasing over measure boundaries and phrase boundaries.

and then, in that same meditative state, feel the groove deeper than anyone else on stage. forget all your left brain Reich and Glass and go full right brain. listen to more latin jazz than you can even stand. learn to dance.

sell all your pedals, turn up the volume, and barely touch the strings. play less notes. play with live drummers as much as possible.

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…or just don’t buy any to begin with. I never got along with any effects on bass guitar- mostly just want(ed) to dial in something approaching the David Wm Sims tone.

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I can definitely relate to the minimalist nature of playing/equipment/pedals when it comes to playing electric bass, but if you haven’t played with an octave fuzz stacked into a doomy fuzz then dare I say you are missing out.

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Production-wise, I had been running into bass muddiness or weakness in my own tracks, so I decided to start doing research and ended up watching a ton of EDM production videos (even though my own music is far from EDM to say the least). This resulted in writing a plugin over the past few months, and I’m sending it to testers tomorrow.

In general, I had a bunch of workflow flaws that were sucking the bass out or making it compete with other frequencies. Some tips:

  • Use multi-band processors wherever possible. Whenever adding any effect (delay, reverb, distortion, etc.) check if it would sound better if only applied to the mid/high bands instead of every band.
  • The frequencies around 400Hz tend to compete a bunch with the bass frequencies below it. Use an EQ to cut this band a bit.
  • Try filtering everything below 30 Hz. You might already be applying DC filtering to your tracks if you’re doing wide-range modular stuff, but in addition to filtering out offsets, this can help remove a lot of bass rumble that can ruin the frequencies that you really want. Additionally, you might be applying DC filtering way too late in your chain (i.e. on the master bus or even during the mastering process). Try adding DC filters before basic effects like saturators.
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There is one pedal I always have between bass & amp, and thats the Moogerfooger MF101 LPF = thunderous dub basslines that make all the glasses in my kitchen rattle!

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I’ve only had a chance to mess with that one time, would love to try it again now that you mention it (as I love thunderous dub!)

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I like the low-end stylings of ska/reggae/dub (taken altogether these genres cover playfulness to darkness in a well-rounded way… plus take me into hip-hop territory since there’s a heavy influence there, too)

it’s a difficult question to answer concisely… good compressor followed by sidechain if possible(i use a MOOER Yellow Comp to juice the analog signal nicely, then further sidechain-driven compression in software to let it sit nicely with kick-drums - the kick ducks out the bass during its attacks and then the bass washes back over like rebounding waves after a splash)

this is why i like ska basslines, they can be playfully lyrical but still keep a good groove(funk bassists like Bootsy also do an amazing job of this)

outside of the mastering chain mentioned above, this is a matter of taste song-writing wise… mine dwells on landing or revolving “around the one” but then playfully syncopating beyond that… if i may show by example:

I used to sing in a school-chorus, i suppose i learned from there that bass voices need to hold it down in a more steady way so the upper-voices can float and play more in any arrangement, so i think this applies nicely for actual bass guitar and synth bass as well.

For synth basses, i got tired of squelchy lines, constantly gravitating more to deep sine-tones(like what timp described when he uses the Moogerfooger MF101 LPF… except that probably sounds better than what i’m describing since my synths will mainly be digital(Aalto is great for both complexity and simplicity, sometimes i’ll use it to create a bass sound, then filter out the low-end completely, and finally double it up with a simple sine-tone from another instance of Aalto to emanate the deep bass end)
For bass-guitar, i specifically chose to buy a Gibson SG bass because of its feel and the sound of the EB-humbucker combined with the EB-minihumbucker:
https://www.flyguitars.com/gibson/bass/parts/pickup/
(but mine is a reissue from around 2001 so i think it’s probably the EB3, i basically picked it up, played it and loved both the feel(lightweight) and the sound, altogether combined to make basslines spawn easily from my sense of how fun it is to play)

and finally, best advice given to me about playing bass “gotta relax your anus” :laughing:
go figure, but it’s true, probably even need to keep that whole area(the human ‘low-end’ of your butt, your pelvis, yer junk etc.) nice and relaxed in order to feel the bass and move with it in your gut(?)
i dunno… but there’s some secret there… and it’s worth mentioning here.
hope that’s all ok to say :sweat_smile:

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Ok, following Rabid and returning to the original questions.

What do you think about when you think about the low end?
First of all funkiness, I love basslines from soul/jazz, syncopation and groove. Low end can take on many roles. It can drive the groove and it can really add emotional weight to a melody or lyric. Especially when the bass has taken a break and comes back in with long powerful notes.

How do you make it stand out, but also sit in a mix?
I’m rubbish at mixing. I try to keep my track-count low. If needed I will sidechain a comp to the kick to make the kick heard.

How do you keep it interesting while still holding things down?
I try to alternate long and short notes, I try to play basslines that feel melodic. Absence and space makes it interesting too.

How do you relate it to your drums?
I don’t know. And I just play what feels good to me. Sometimes I follow the kick, sometimes I play in the space between kicks. Recording and seeing in Ableton where my bass notes land has made me more aware of “playing in the pocket”. After the beginning mistakes of putting my notes on the grid, I’m now more interesting in seeing “what it looks like” - when it feels good.

How do you relate it to your harmonies and melodies?
When coming up with basslines I’ll start with the root-notes and by exploring the chord-notes. When looping a section for a while I will usually come across passing notes, walks etc that feels good. Sometimes I get some call and response happening between different melodies/riffs (vocal, guitar etc).

In general I strive to find bass-lines to have some kind of “hook-quality”. Be it BoC “Roygibv”, Sly Stone, New Order or whatever. A song with bassline like this kills me every time:

What are your favorite sound sources and processing techniques?
A year ago I got an early Fender Squire P-bass (JV) that just made me realize “Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to sound”. I record it straight into a Neve-clone pre and a DBX 163x compressor. Sounds great to me for my music. Synth-wise I got the same “ah, that’s it”-feeling when I first used my Moog Minitaur. It just sounds so fat and sweet. For now I have no more low-end needs equipment wise.

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